In early July 2009, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) published a report on the situation of women in Afghanistan entitled Silence Is Violence: End the Abuse of Women in Afghanistan. The report describes and denounces the pervasive violence against women in Afghanistan, which unfortunately has been allowed to continue almost unabated since the demise of the Taliban regime and has crushed hopes for a better life for women in the country. The report focuses on sexual violence and on violence that inhibits the participation of women in public life.
Afghanistan is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and has thus committed itself to working to ensure equality for women. Under its Constitution, 25 per cent of members of parliament must be women, which means that at least 64 of the 249 members of the House of Representatives (Wolesi Jirga) should be women. However, women’s presence in parliament has not translated into tangible improvements in their situation in the country. Indeed, the UNAMA report shows that women politicians, including parliamentarians who defend women’s human rights and push the equality agenda, do so at great risk to themselves and at times their families.
The case of a woman member of parliament, Ms. Malalai Joya, currently under review by the IPU’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians is a clear example. Ms. Joya was the youngest member of Afghanistan’s parliament when she was elected in 2005. She has gained an international reputation not only as a staunch defender of women’s human rights but also as a fierce critic of the warlords. Her life has been in danger ever since she publicly demanded in parliament that the warlords be brought to justice.
Her case was submitted to the IPU Committee after parliament voted, on 21 May 2007, to suspend her for the rest of her term of office, citing a television interview in which she criticized the warlords and compared parliament to a stable or a zoo. The Committee holds that her suspension from parliament, which in fact amounts to a revocation of her mandate, is entirely out of proportion and in fact unlawful, and it has consequently insisted that she be reinstated without delay. The Committee has also observed that none of the parliamentarians who called her a prostitute and a whore has ever been sanctioned.
In a meeting in October 2008, the Deputy Speaker of the Wolesi Jirga agreed with the Committee that the decision to suspend Ms. Joya contravened parliamentary standards and should not have been taken. Every effort, he said, would be made to reinstate her. To date, however, nothing has happened. Instead, the Committee was recently told that it was impossible for parliament to contact Ms. Joya as she was out of the country all the time. But there is evidence showing that Ms. Joya spends much time in Afghanistan, and the Committee is also aware of the efforts she has made to obtain justice, including through the Supreme Court, which to date has not even examined her petition. The Committee is appalled that Ms. Joya continues to be denied her fundamental right to exercise her parliamentary mandate and that consequently her electorate, and in particular the women who voted for her, are deprived of representation in parliament.
The term of the current legislature will end next year in September and Ms. Joya’s mandate will therefore soon expire – all the more reason for parliament to reinstate her immediately. This would not only redress the injustice she has suffered, but also send a positive signal to all women that parliament is a place where they are treated on a par with men, can speak out and can fight for women’s rights.